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‘The Human Factor’ Review: Documenting the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict as a First-Rate Thriller

Dror Moreh's follow-up to "The Gatekeepers" explains why this process keeps coming up short.

“The Human Factor”

Much of the world views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a fixed problem with no end in sight. Few can explain why, but “The Human Factor” finds those who can. With the white-knuckle intensity of a first-rate political thriller, Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh’s engrossing documentary tracks glacial efforts to broker a peace deal over the past three decades.

“The Human Factor” drills down on the fluctuating tensions between Yasser Arafat and Israel’s revolving door of leadership. By speaking exclusively to the handful of negotiators involved in America’s efforts to broker a deal, Moreh’s focused collection of talking heads and archival footage is limited to a handful of takeaways about what went wrong. It turns out some policy wonks make eloquent storytellers and they excel at putting their own failings in context. The result is a must-see for anyone looking to understand why this bloody turf war shows no sign of letting up.

As with his 2012 Israeli security exposé “The Gatekeepers,” Moreh relies on just six men — his magic number for assembling a taut and troubling history lesson — pairing their recollections with ample footage and a frantic score. Here, the minimalist approach creates focus on a fleeting moment when peace actually seemed viable — until, of course, it didn’t. That would be the Clinton years, when America’s 42nd president enlisted a team of talented intelligence and foreign policy experts for a series of sit-downs with the two nations’ leadership, culminating in the 2000 Camp David summit that ended in bitter failure.

The U.S. negotiators tasked with moderating those conversations have a lot to say about it. Dennis Ross, who worked on the Arab-Israeli peace process through four administrations, speaks to the constant give-and-take between Israel and Palestine that left the prospects of measurable results in constant limbo. Explaining the brief period in which conciliatory Israeli prime minister Yitzchak Rabin managed to build a measure of camaraderie with Arafat under Bill Clinton’s watchful eye, Ross says: “The other side has to believe it’s not being manipulated.”

Moreh pushes his subjects to reveal the seriocomic aspect of such high-level negotiations; a White House sitdown was nearly sabotaged by Arafat’s last-minute decision to wear his military uniform. As the title implies, “The Human Factor” dwells in the fragile nature of each moment, and how the whims of powerful leaders (all testosterone-fueled men) can lead to abrupt decisions that impact the lives of millions.

Clinton’s initial back-and-forth between Israeli leadership and the PLO managed to outline a happy ending, but “The Human Factor” illustrates the feeble nature of a starting point that was engineered for media hype. The negotiations culminated in the 1993 Oslo Accords that amounted to little more than the ultimate handshake photo op. Moreh captures the buildup to that moment with a rapid-fire montage that illuminates the delicacy of even the most superficial efforts to find common ground.

The final accords were signed in August 1995; three months later, Rabin was assassinated. Further destabilization in the region followed, and ensuing talks with Rabin’s successor, the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, didn’t go as well. From there, against the backdrop of Clinton’s impeachment, the complications kept piling up.

Galal Hamel, an Arabic interpreter and Middle East envoy, makes the crucial point that the very concept of “peace” creates unrealistic expectations for both sides. Arafat wasn’t looking for harmony; he was looking for results that would satisfy his people, and the Americans neglected to comprehend the difference between some kind of deal and the right one for the moment.

Moreh is a constant off-camera presence, bellowing questions to the men to box them into revealing their biggest oversights. As he pushes to address their Jewish identity and a similar failure to muster peace talks between Israel and Syria, they don’t exactly push back. It’s clear that the world’s sole superpower was out of its element, attempting to reconcile values that are intrinsically incompatible. Those vast expectations led to a state of perpetual denial, which only caused more anger and division as both sides receded from negotiation.

In its final moments, “The Human Factor” zips through the ensuing 20-odd years, briefly acknowledging Donald Trump’s inane efforts to message his intentions with Netanyahu (and mercifully avoids mention of the inexperienced Jared Kushner’s efforts to broker a deal). It doesn’t require much political savvy to recognize that if the studious, well-spoken diplomats at the center of “The Human Factor” couldn’t muster progress, the incompetent ones were doomed from the start.

If there is a better way to approach the situation, “The Human Factor” can’t find it. Former diplomat and translator Gamal Helal rejects the notion of a two-state solution, but insists that some aspects of their initial proposals could have yielded better results in a slightly different configuration. That’s about as close as the movie comes to offering a measure of hope for the future. Moreh doesn’t solve the problem of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but “The Human Factor” states the stalemate better than ever.

Grade: B

Sony Pictures Classics releases “The Human Factor” in theaters on Friday, January 22.

As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.

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